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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.4 (2001) 751-764

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Messages in Bottles and Collins's Seafaring Man

Anthea Trodd

In November 1860 Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins visited Devon and Cornwall together to gather ideas for the nautical story, A Message from the Sea, the 1860 Christmas number for All The Year Round, which would prove to be their penultimate collaboration. 1 They "arranged and parcelled out" the sections for the story before they returned, and wrote it in London during the next fortnight. 2 The fourth chapter, "The Seafaring Man," was Collins's prime responsibility, and Dickens responded with irritation to Collins's original beginning for this section, writing to Georgina Hogarth: "Wilkie brought the beginning of his part of the Xmas No. to dinner yesterday. I hope it will be good. But is it not a most extraordinary thing that it began: 'I have undertaken to take pen in hand, to set down in writing--&c. &c--' like the W in W narratives? Of course, I at once pointed out the necessity of cancelling that, 'off,' as Carlyle would say 'for evermore from the face of the teeming earth where the universal Dayvle stalks at large.'" 3 "The Seafaring Man" is a first person narrative framed by a story in the third person written predominantly by Dickens. 4 It was Collins's first contribution to a collaboration with Dickens since the publication earlier that year of The Woman in White, and, even after Dickens's intervention, further develops the method of Collins's first major success. It is a personal testimony, an eyewitness account, whose effect depends upon its insistence on the speaker's entire individuality and the limitations of his point of view. Further, its authenticity is assured to the reader by the speaker's proclaimed and demonstrated diffidence and inadequacy in ordering his memories into narrative form. [End Page 751]

A Message from the Sea is a story about the healthful circulation of information and sympathy on which the progress of society depends, and of which the collaboration of Dickens and Collins was itself affirmation. "The Seafaring Man," however, written by a Collins increasingly confident after the success of The Woman in White, departs conspicuously from the narrative methods of the frame. In this penultimate joint work we can see his path diverging markedly from his senior partner. In the frame, genial American ship owner Captain Jorgan brings a message in a bottle, retrieved from the southern ocean, to Alfred Raybrock, the Devonshire fisherman brother of the lost sailor who wrote it. Their attempts to solve the mystery of this partly erased message take them to a Cornish pub, where a local club is engaged in communal storytelling. Hugh, the missing sailor, appears and tells his story, the longest piece of continuous narrative in the number.

In "The Seafaring Man," Collins constructs Hugh's ordinary individuality by distinguishing him from the archetypal figure suggested in the title, and by disappointing expectations of a yarn in the tradition that credits the sailor, as in Walter Benjamin's "The Storyteller," with skill in creating a fiction based on experience and travel, with the purpose of communicating practical wisdom. 5 In the nautical fictions of the post-Napoleonic decades, a common enthusiasm for Dickens and Collins, this archetype was propagatedby a Romantic nostalgia for a community that had preserved the archaic skills of traditional storytelling. 6 In Captain Frederick Marryat's novels such as Peter Simple (1836) and Masterman Ready (1840), a deep understanding of the principles of storytelling is the sailor's dominant characteristic. 7 The club subscribes to this tradition and invites Hugh to join them in their cozy parlor on the strength of it. They are incredulous of his claims of narrative incompetence: "A sailor without a story! Who ever heard of such a thing?" Hugh is precisely not the common sailor his story's title suggests. He responds to the proffered archetype by insisting on his more-elevated status: "A man likes his true quality to be known." 8...


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